Recommended: 'Big Kahn,' K. Smith's 'Batman' and Maneely's 'Black Knight'

By Andrew A. Smith
Scripps Howard News Service

Sept. 22, 2009 -- Rabbi David Kahn was a well-respected spiritual and community leader when he died. That’s when his wife, three children and synagogue found out he wasn’t a rabbi. And he wasn’t Jewish. Heck, he wasn’t even David Kahn.

He was a con man named Donnie Dobbs, a cheap grifter who fell in love with a Jewish girl, and transformed into the good man she though he was.

He just never got around to telling her about the first part. The big con.

That “big con” is the ghost haunting The Big Kahn ($13.95, NBM ComicsLit), a graphic novel by writer Neil Kleid (Brownsville) and artist Nicolas Cinquegrani. Kahn follows the reactions of the shell-shocked Mrs. Kahn and the two oldest children, the devout Avi (groomed to replace his father as rabbi of Beth Shemesh) and the promiscuous and irreverent Lea (who rejected her father’s pious ways). Each reacts to the grenade tossed into their lives in different ways.

I won’t reveal those ways, except to say that Kleid tells a plausible story with a great deal of insight and skill – although I found the ending too saccharine. Cinquegari is pretty bland, but he exhibits the skill most necessary for this story – the ability to convey emotion and individuality through expression and posture.

It’s not Will Eisner, but The Big Kahn is full of heart.

Elsewhere:

* Movie auteur and occasional comics writer Kevin Smith says Batman: Cacaphony is the second-best Batman story he and artist Walt Flanagan have in them. And I believe him.

Cacaphony (DC Comics, $19.99) features Onomatepoeia, a serial killer of non-powered superheroes, a character and dangling plotline Smith introduced in his Green Arrow run. Frankly, I found this character irritating; his schtick is to repeat sound effects aloud, for no apparent reason. (Hence the name.)

Fortunately he’s not on panel much, preferring to work through proxies to bait traps, run diversions and generally create chaos. This allows Smith to bring in a host of other villains that he handles quite well, including The Joker, Deadshot, Mr. Zsasz and Maxie Zeus.

So I (mildly) enjoyed Cacaphony, but didn’t think it was Smith’s best work. Interestingly, he agreed.

In his foreword, Smith writes: “By series’ end, I realized it wasn’t the best Batman story I could write; nor was it Walt’s finest hour. … [It was] a dress rehearsal for the best Batman story I could write/Walt could draw.” Which, according to Smith, is the 12-issue maxiseries that launched in August: Batman: The Widening Gyre.

There’s something odd about an artist proclaiming the work he wants you to buy as “a warm-up.” But it has the smack of honesty about it, and that’s refreshing. So I’ll join Smith's recommendation when he says “please enjoy the second-best Batman story me and Walt could tell.”

* Most 1950s reprints are pretty awful, or dated, or both, and I read them just for historical reasons. But every once in a while I stumble onto something like Marvel Masterworks: Atlas Era Black Knight/Yellow Claw (Marvel Publishing, $59.99) and it blows me away.

Joe Maneely was the mainstay of Atlas Comics, the ‘50s forerunner to Marvel Comics, and he was a terrific artist – he’d be top tier even today. And he outdid himself on Black Knight, a title written by future superstar Stan Lee that mixed superhero mythology with the chivalric kind. The Knight was a mysterious paladin with a magic sword that guarded King Arthur from the secret machinations of the Machiavellian Modred, while maintaining an identity at court as the foppish, cowardly Sir Percy. What terrific fun!

The second half of the book is the collected Yellow Claw, one of those rare titles that stars a villain. And, yes, the Claw was an embarrassing racial stereotype of the “yellow peril” kind. But here’s a part that isn’t: The hero of the book was also Asian, FBI agent Jimmy Woo! And with art by Maneely and Jack Kirby, and scripts by Lee, it’s easy to see more pluses than minuses.

Both Knight and Claw died premature deaths due to a catastrophic comics-distribution collapse in the late ‘50s, so what’s in this collection is all there is. That’s really disappointing, and you can’t help but wonder how comics would have been changed if these two genres had succeeded – which, with quality like this, they probably would have.

We’ll never know. But at least we have this small taste, which will have to do.

Contact Andrew A. Smith of the Memphis Commercial Appeal at capncomics@aol.com.

Views: 172

Comment by Jeff of Earth-J on September 28, 2009 at 9:58am
The Black Knight portion of the recent Marvel Masterworks edition thrust me into a BK phase which led me in turn to various incarnations from Tales to Astonish, Tales of Suspense, Marvel Super Heroes, the 1990 Black Knight mini-series the Black Knight issue of the recent Mystic Arcana series. I also recently acquired a tpb reprinting the Black Knight’s series (co-starring Captain Britain) from the British Hulk Comic series and I’m very much looking forward to reading those during the course of my “Complete UK Captain Britain” discussion in the “In Depth” forum.

The Yellow Claw half of the Masterworks was both thrilling and frustrating at the same time. Thrilling because I now have at last the entire run of this short-lived series in my collection, but frustrating because of the policy at the time to include four stories per issue, three Yellow Claw and one back-up. Consequently, all of the Yellow Claw stories seemed rushed and could have used further development. Certainly the ideas were good enough to support an issue-length story. It's interesting to see what themes and subjects Kirby was already writing on his own as early as the mid-fifties (mutants, genetic research, alien visitations, etc.) which he would later develop with Stan Lee and, later still, in his solo work of the ‘70s.
Comment by Dagwan on September 28, 2009 at 12:16pm
So, the Joker making anal sex jokes was just a warm-up to Poison Ivy masturbating on-panel?

Doesn't DC have editors anymore?

I hate to see what happens when Mr. Smith hits his stride.

"You've got the brain of a four-year-old boy, and I'll bet he was glad to get rid of it." -Groucho Marx

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